Smoky Dawson AM MBE (19 March 1913 - 13 February 2008) born as Herbert "Herb" Henry Brown, and affectionally known as Herb or Herbie was an Australian born and bred country music performer, entertainer and icon. He was widely touted as Australia's first singing cowboy complete with acoustic steel string guitar and yodel, in the style of American Gene Autry: Dawson had an extraordinarily long and prolific career, releasing his first single in 1941 and his last album in 2005, aged 92, making him the world's oldest recording artist (although now surpassed by the forces sweetheart Dame Vera Lynn). The Powerhouse Museum described him as "a singer, showman, songwriter, scriptwriter, knife and double-headed axe thrower and all round performer who has lived a long life entertaining audiences. Through his high-rating syndicated radio serials (at their height broadcast on 100 stations) television appearances, comic books and songs he created the persona of a happy-go-lucky singing cowboy". In 1985, he published his autobiography, Smoky Dawson: A Life. He entertained fans and was a staple of the music industry, right up until his death in 2008, a month before his 95th birthday and marched annually in the national ANZAC day commemorations.
Smoky Dawson was born as Herbert Henry Brown on 19 March 1913 in Collingwood, Victoria. His father, Parker Frederick Peter Brown (21 November 1884 - 1957), was a labourer of Irish descent; his mother, Olive "Amy" Muir (ca. 1880 - June 1919), was of Scottish descent. His parents married in 1905, and they had five children, Leslie Muir Wood "Les" (1904-1920), Laura Olive Emily (1906-1941), Peter Frederick James (1908-1972), Herbert Henry "Herbie", and Edward Parker Peter "Ted" (aka Ted Dawson) (1915-1978). The Browns initially lived in Melbourne and briefly moved to the rural area of Warrnambool. His father, Parker Brown, also worked in a dispensary, and had performed as a baritone under the name, Frederick Parker, at the Bijou in Melbourne. Parker had studied as a medical student before serving in World War I. He enlisted in the Australian Army in June 1915 and fought at Gallipoli from October until January 1916. He was diagnosed with neurasthenia and was discharged in August 1916 on medical grounds. Dawson later remembered, "my dad went to Gallipoli ... but unfortunately he suffered a lot from it and so did the family". In June 1919 his mother, Amy, died of unspecified causes and the following year his brother, Les, died by drowning on Christmas Day. By that time his father had remarried.
Parker was prone to heavy drinking and violence, Dawson repeatedly ran away from home after his beatings. Once he was nearly choked to death, ran off and, after being caught, he was chained in a dog's tent by his father. From the age of eight or nine he was "making up little ditties" which soothed him. At about nine-years-old, Dawson was so severely beaten that he ran away from home again. He travelled to his mother's family, the Muirs, in Melbourne and was sent, by a court order, to live for three years at St. Vincent de Paul's Boys' Orphanage, South Melbourne. It was administered by the Catholic Church's Christian Brothers, Dawson was baptised in that faith and took a confirmation name, Aidan. For school holidays he was sent to a farm near Birregurra run by the Carews. He had learned to sing at the orphanage and Jack Carew taught him to play the harmonica and piano accordion. At the age of thirteen Dawson left the orphanage to join his older brother, Peter, working on a farm at Stewarton (about 8 miles (13 km) from Goorambat). Each Saturday night he would sing at the local town hall with a repertoire that included "Funiculi, Funicula", "Little Brown Cottage" and "Good Morning, Good Morning".
In 1932 Smoky Dawson worked at a tannery and on weekends he played a lap steel guitar in a duo, The Coral Island Boys, with his younger brother, Ted, on Spanish guitar. Both sang lead vocals, with Ted's singing described by Dawson as "a much richer voice than mine. He had more depth in his voice". They performed then-popular songs, such as "Gee But I'm Lonesome for You Caroline" and "Southern Moon Keep on Shining". In 1934, Dawson formed a Western group with an accordionist, a bass guitarist, and Malcolm on violin; which cut a test acetate at Fidelity Records with Jack Murray recording. It was the first professional use of Dawson's nickname, "Smoky" - he had tried pipe smoking when living at Stewarton but it had sickened him. The recording led to sponsorship by Pepsodent - a toothpaste company - and so the group were named, Smoky and the Pepsodent Rangers. In 1935 they were the first Western group to be broadcast live on an Australian radio station, 3KZ, and by 1937 Dawson had his own radio show. His show was re-broadcast into New South Wales on 2CH as "Hill-billy Artists" by "Smoky" Dawson and His Boys. In 1941, he signed with Columbia Records, where he recorded his first commercial releases, including "I'm a Happy Go Lucky Cowhand" and "The Range in the Western Sky". He also toured around Australia.
Dawson had used music as a way of comforting himself and during World War II he took this talent to boost the morale of others. In 1939 upon the outbreak of the war he had attempted to enlist, but was rejected on medical grounds for a "bumpy heart". In 1940, with Smoky Dawson's Five-Star Rangers, he would perform at soldier's socials. In 1941 when the Japanese forces approached Australia, he enlisted as a non-combatant nursing orderly and was commandeered by the First Australian Army Entertainment Unit. On 13 March 1944, while still in the army, he married Florence "Dot" Cheers (12 October 1906 - 27 October 2010), an elocution teacher - they had met nine years earlier when both worked in radio.Western Mail 's Louis Clark, described Dawson as an "Australian outback songster" and the unit as "an array of genius". Aside from music, Dawson would also perform at rodeos, circuses and country shows demonstrating his skill at knife-throwing using machetes, commando knives, tomahawks, or two-edged axes. By October 1949, Dawson had recorded about 60 tracks from his songbook of 280 tunes - all of them "have a cowboy setting--with a dash of romance". Dawson travelled around Australia for eight months a year while Dot remained behind as Auntie June on her own radio show for 3KZ.
In March 1951 Dawson, as a cowboy entertainer, narrated a documentary film, directed by Rudall Hayward, on Australian rough riders at a Kyabram rodeo, which was to be broadcast on United States TV. Dawson sang a self-written song praising their skills and noted "there's nothing half-baked about Australian rodeos or the boys who ride in them. They're entitled to all the credit we can give them ... Rodeos and rough riders are just as much a part of our national heritage as symphonies and seascapes". In June that year Dawson and Dot travelled to the US where he recorded and played at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. While in New Jersey, he took the role of Petruchio in a stage version of the musical, Kiss Me, Kate. When Dawson returned to Australia in September 1952 he was hailed as an "Australian singing 'cowboy' who has made good in the US at the expense of the world's best". For trick riding his palomino horse, Flash (1951-1982), was bedecked in American-style tack rather than Australian. Flash lived to be 31 years old and Dawson supplemented his feed by giving him porridge with a spoon. Echoing US singing cowboy, Roy Rogers, on 8 December 1952 Dawson starred in his own radio show, The Adventures of Smoky Dawson, which stayed on the air for ten years until 1962.
At its peak, Dawson's show was broadcast on 69 stations across the country. Dot also had her own radio shows for children. A related comic book of the same name was published from 1953 to 1962 and both featured "Dawson's persona which became 'Australia's favourite cowboy', with his faithful sidekick Jingles, his horse Flash and their young friend Billy fighting the evil outlaw Grogan, adhering to Smoky's 'code of the west', pausing for a song, a moral and sometimes a bowl of cornflakes, courtesy of the program's sponsor". For the radio show Dawson provided "renditions of a magpie, kookaburra, rooster, turkey, pig, cow, an impatient horse, a posse with bloodhounds (with the bandit being shot), a pack of dogs fighting and next door's dog howling in the middle of the night". In 1957 he founded the Smoky Dawson Ranch on 26 acres (11 ha) farm at Ingleside as a venue to host country music shows, a horse riding school and a holiday camp for children.
In 1974 a TV series, Luke's Kingdom, was shot at Dawson's ranch. The following year he featured on This Is Your Life hosted by Mike Willesee. In 1988 he appeared in two episodes of TV soap opera, A Country Practice, as a drifter, "Charlie McKeahnie", who passes through the fictional location of Wandin Valley and proposes to town gossip, "Esme Watson" (portrayed by Joyce Jacobs). His performance was so popular with viewers that he made another appearance the following year. Dawson was a Freemason.
Awards and legacy:
Smoky Dawson continued his long career of recording and performing after his radio show, and enjoyed performing until he died. He has frequently been recognised for his contributions to music and entertainment. In 1977, with Tex Morton and Buddy Williams, Dawson was inducted into the Hands of Fame at Tamworth. On 31 December 1982 Dawson was awarded an Order of the British Empire - Member (Civil) with the citation, "In recognition of service to country music". In 1983 he was named on the Australian Country Music Roll of Renown. In 1985 he published his autobiography, Smoky Dawson: A Life. In 1988 Dawson and Trevor Knight won The Heritage Golden Guitar at the Country Music Awards of Australia for "The Days of Old Khancoban" - written by Dawson about the droving days of his youth in the Snowy Mountains. The following year Dawson and Knight won a second Golden Guitar for their song, "High Country", as Best Vocal Duo or Group.
In 1994 Film Australia broadcast his biography based on taped interviews by Robin Hughes for the Australian Biography Project. On Australia Day (26 January) 1999 Dawson was made a Member of the Order of Australia with the citation, "In recognition of service to country music". In 2005 he was inducted into the Australian Record Industry Association Hall of Fame. He has also been recognised in the US, and received the Honor Award of the Grand Ole Opry. In April 2007 he donated his first electric guitar to the Australian Stockman's Hall of Fame. Smoky's Bar and Grill was opened in his name in 2005 at the West Diggers Club in Tamworth - he attended with Dot. His recording career spanned more than six decades, his last album, Homestead of My Dreams, was released in 2005.
Powerhouse Museum described him as "a singer, showman, songwriter, scriptwriter, knife and double-headed axe thrower and all round performer who has lived a long life entertaining audiences. Through his radio serials, comic books and songs he created the persona of a happy-go-lucky singing cowboy". From 2001 the museum has displayed his signed copy of the comic book, The Adventures of Smoky Dawson, and other memorabilia, which was subsequently donated by Dawson in 2004.
For his service to country music, Dawson was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (December 1982), a Member of the Order of Australia (January 1999), and was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame in 2005.
In his later years Smoky Dawson was diagnosed with arthritis, emphysema and two hernias. In June 2000 he was knocked down by a hit-and-run driver and had spinal injuries. As of 2004 he and Dot presented a radio show on 2NSB and lived in Lane Cove, New South Wales. Herbert Henry "Smoky" Dawson died on 13 February 2008 after a short illness, a month short of his 95th birthday. He was survived by his wife, Florence "Dot" Dawson, who died on 27 October 2010 at 104 years of age. In a 2005 interview Dawson indicated how he would like to be remembered, "Ah well, just as Herb. Just as one who's tried his best, he's carried out, lover of his country and always thought about the good things in life. Being honest and true to yourself, main thing, true to yourself. And ah, I think to be remembered as an old friend".
Smoky, Dawson (1985). Smoky Dawson : a life. Illustrated by Pro Hart, Introduction by R. M. Williams. Sydney: Allen & Unwin. ISBN 978-0-86861-774-9.
Text from this biography licensed under creative commons license